Over 600 people from around the world came to Newark for the 10th annual North American convention of Bnei Baruch One Kabbalah.
Among those gathered May 20-22 at the Doubletree Hilton was Seth Breitman of Princeton, a follower of One Kabbalah since 2006. He said what draws him is the group’s approach to the big questions of life.
“I’m always looking for answers. What’s the purpose of my life? What’s it all about?” he told NJJN at the conference. He calls One Kabbalah “a small laboratory of people trying — working on — loving each other, beyond ego, above the regular stuff like this person smells or I don’t like that person’s style,” he said. “It’s about intention. This is an internal process.”
Like many of the conference-goers, Breitman considers himself a seeker. He spent six years involved with Chabad, tried delving into Transcendental Meditation, and earlier in life, he said, “I was a professional Deadhead,” describing the zeal with which he followed the band the Grateful Dead.
The stated goal of the entire conference, and of One Kabbalah, is to connect with other people.
In New Jersey, and at “mirror” conferences around the world, participants sat at long tables, organized into designated groups of “friends,” as the conference opened on Friday morning. One Kabbalah founder Dr. Michael Laitman lectured from a podium in Hebrew, using a translator. (Although English was dominant, participants could also listen in Russian and Spanish, among other languages). Large screens around the room alternated between the Newark conference and gatherings taking place in such locations as Haifa, Berlin, and Zaporozhye, a city in Ukraine.
At various points during his three-hour talk, Laitman would pose a question, and each group of friends would converse and offer responses among themselves. For example, while discussing building a spiritual world through relying on areyvut — which he defines as a “mutual guarantee” among friends — he asked, “How does areyvut provide me with the material to build a spiritual world? Go ahead.”
(The concept of areyvut usually connotes a relationship of responsibility among Jews for one another.)
The morning’s session concluded with participants singing about one-ness, swaying arm in arm.
One Kabbalah, founded in 1997, is headquartered in Petach Tikva, Israel. According to its website, Leitman named it Bnei Baruch in memory of his teacher and mentor Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, son of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (aka Ba’al Hasulam). The elder Ashlag wrote Hasulam (The Ladder), a commentary on the Book of Zohar, the central text of mystical Judaism. Leitman himself holds a PhD in philosophy and Kabala, and a master of science in bio-cybernetics; despite his lack of rabbinic ordination, his followers call him “Rav.”
Laitman believes that a widespread adoption of his philosophy will make the world a better place. As he explains on the One Kabbalah website, “We are all in a state called ‘broken.’” By contrast, at one time, “we were all in a state of ‘ayn sof,’” [literally: no end] in which we all had “one desire, and what filled it was one light and one force.”
But after some time, the situation “began to deteriorate” so that today “we are remote from one another, rejecting one another, unable to take into account one another.” The point of Kabala, says Laitman, is that it “tells us how to come out of this state and return to the state we were before — as one desire.”
Speaking with NJJN at the conference, he said that the rise in anti-Semitism in the world today can be attributed to Jews “not doing what it is upon us to do.” Asked what it is that Jews are supposed to do, he said, “We need to show the whole world the method, the connection, that the world needs so badly.” And that is his goal: “to get the people of Israel to follow the commandment V’ahavta lareiha kamoha, love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said, adding, “By that we will neutralize anti-Semitism.”
Like its biggest competitor, The Kabbalah Centre, participants need not be Jewish. In fact, the conference attracted people from a diversity of backgrounds. Tracy Novembre, a children’s author from Colts Neck, was raised Catholic; so was Moraima Lopez, originally from the Dominican Republic. Others, like Seth Bogner, originally from Long Island and now from Italy, are Jewish. What they have in common is a search for something bigger than themselves.
Lopez said, “All my life I’m looking for something. I have questions about who I am.” About various hardships in her life, she said, she would ask, “Why me?” One day, about seven years ago, on the computer, she came across One Kabbalah and Laitman. “I heard Rav talking, and I say, ‘He has the answer. He is talking to me!” She’s been studying with him ever since.
Svetlana Rubinov of Queens, a registered nurse who is among a large contingent of Russian followers of Laitman, was attending her first conference. Like others, she’s tried other forms of spiritual seeking, including the healing technique reiki. She was finding the first conference session a bit “confusing” but, she said, the other participants helped. “I feel their love and understanding. Their willingness to help makes it much easier.”
But for her, the jury is still out. “I’m not sure yet,” she said. “It would be helpful to hear more concrete ideas.”
There are plenty of skeptics. In a 2012 article in Haaretz, author Uri Blau offered an unflattering picture of the organization, questioning its openness and even its legality, as well as its finances.
But Norma Livne, a former Telemundo reporter whose role at Bnei Baruch includes student and manager of the Spanish department, dismissed the allegations out of hand, insisting that the goals are what they profess to be, that the finances are an open book, and that there is nothing at all secretive about One Kabbalah.
Livne added that the entire goal is “to experience connection. V’ahavta lareiha kamoha. That’s the work.”